Last month, the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, North America’s largest document festival, went virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The film that was on our radar was the Hungry Eyes Media produced documentary Subjects of Desire.

With the 2018 Miss Black America pageant and its contestants as a backdrop, the film tells the story of Black women and Black beauty from slavery to today and our journey of acceptance, both from society and ourselves. The film highlights the objectification and fetishization of Black women, from notes from early explorers and old medical journals to Mammy, Sapphire and Jezebel stereotypes. It also highlights watershed moments in Black beauty including the rise of #BlackGirlMagic in 2013 and more recently in 2019 when the Miss America, Miss USA, Miss Teen USA and Miss Universe winners were all Black.

The film captures beautifully the emotions that surface surrounding police brutality, appropriation and trauma. As the 2018 Miss Black American winner, Ryann Richardson, notes, it would be easier “If we as Black women were just being judged for how beautiful we are or not.”

There were many points that resonated with me personally as a Black woman. There is so much uncertainty and lack of confidence I feel as a Black woman that I didn’t realize was rooted in history until watching this documentary. Of the three stereotypes presented, I identify with Sapphire, hate Jezebel and see small amounts of Mammy in myself, especially in the need to appeal to or please white people, and in beauty and self-care being an afterthought. While I own that I’m allowed to be angry (like Sapphire) and it comes as almost a default, if I’m honest, it’s tiring. Like for many of us, the journey of being Black is just as much emotional as it is cultural.

The idea of beauty is very layered. For me and many Black women we’re never simply beautiful, but “beautiful for a Black girl”. I hate that it still seems like “the world revolves around white people” as Richardson noted.

Either way, the documentary was well done and a beautiful work from Canadian filmmaker Jennifer Holness and her team. It was both accurate and emotional as a picture of what it’s like to be a Black woman today. But it was also a source of pride. Beautiful and strong Black women sharing their diverse backgrounds and talents is something that was desperately missing on Canadian television. More of this please.

Subjects of Desire is available on TVO and Crave.

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